"A new convention center will doubtless alter the fabric of the city."
Such was the effervescent pitch in 2006 when the Music City Center (MCC) Committee ignited momentum toward a billion-dollar gamble on the convention business. Forty months later Mayor Karl Dean is ready to pull the trigger: He wants the city to buy land downtown this summer and start moving earth by fall.
Breathless discourse about "the fabric of the city" is calculated to give civic leaders and business types goose bumps as they embrace with native pride an irresistible opportunity to create a fabulous new focal point for Nashville's tourism identity. But for all the manufactured fabulousness that convention center enthusiasts can muster, the campaign behind it is really kind of underwhelming, even sad.
Herewith, a half-dozen ways the whole enterprise is depressingly familiar, resembling every other trumped up sales pitch for large public investment.
The fix was in early. Almost a decade ago the city's oligarchs started obsessing about convention center space. Seeds for expansion were planted in two consultants' studies in 2001 and an outside audit of the existing center in 2003. The big push came in a complaisant KPMG study in 2004 that served up robust estimates of gains a new center would yield in visitor volume, tourist spending, tax revenues and job creation. Then came the MCC Committee—a handpicked panel that in 2006 produced a one-sided argument and blueprint for the facility now being developed.
Analysis is shaky. The problem, as last week's Scene cover story explained, is that convention center studies are notoriously suspect. Urban development expert Haywood Sanders of the University of Texas at San Antonio analyzed such studies for projects in more than 30 cities over 15 years. His research found that consultants routinely rely on biased trade show industry numbers, make naive extrapolations of historical data, regularly fail to predict market performance accurately, ignore concerns about high costs and signs of competitive disadvantage, and recycle the idea that expansion in some cities mandates expansion in others just to keep up. There is, Sanders concludes, a "remarkable divorce of these studies from reality."
Arguments are cooked. Coherent reasoning tends to be sidelined when cities get hot and bothered about building things at public expense. One familiar tactic is the selective use of evidence friendly to one side and tainted by self-interest. The MCC Committee report presented page after page of letters from meeting planners and trade associations imploring us to add space to accommodate events that cannot fit in our existing facility. We're not supposed to notice that these people stand to accrue negotiating power as more cities add more space to the nation's overall convention center glut. And of course, we hear only from players who are oh-so-sorry to report they have grown out of our current space, but never from planners of smaller meetings that remain compatible with our existing facility or might grow into it.
Faulty analogies are another way to cook the argument. Tennessean columnist Gail Kerr, citing the Parthenon, the Ryman and the Titans, recently urged city leaders to get on with it given the city's "long history of pushing ahead with important projects over the objections of the skeptical." This is a classic error in logic: Comparisons with unrelated projects launched under different economic conditions are little more than shameless misdirection away from the (questionable) merits of the present proposal.
The price tag is headed north. Costs inevitably rise when it takes years to get something off the ground. But it's all too common to peddle early-stage enthusiasm at cut-rate prices, then reveal true costs after everyone has swallowed the concept. Exhibit A is the cost of land for a new center. Three years ago, that was pegged at $20 million-$25 million. The thinking now is mid-$50s, with the mayor seeking authority to spend up to $75 million. Metro finance director Rich Riebeling doesn't know how the 2006 estimate was devised, but conceded that it "does seem like a large increase," perhaps explained by "escalation due to the talk about this project."
The price tag for the whole enchilada has jumped from $455 million in 2006 to the current estimate of $635 million. And that doesn't include costs the city will incur to develop a companion hotel, something seen as essential to the success of the enterprise.
Imagining something other than a box. Cities building convention centers are susceptible to the illusion that theirs will be different. The MCC, say enthusiasts, is "not a big box." It will become "this city's front porch, a gathering spot for hundreds of thousands of visitors who are entering the city for the first time."
In my day-job life I attend meetings in different cities, usually in a big convention center. Some have niftier exteriors, but they all share two common features: They are big boxy spaces creating an indoor reality that can be replicated anywhere, and convention goers want to escape at the first opportunity. That doesn't make them pointless, but an honest civic debate will benefit from a suspension of fantasy.
Alternatives left unexplored. Convention center momentum has crowded out serious efforts to think creatively about economic development. Are there alternative ways to build a vibrant tax base that serves residents and attracts visitors? Have any of the big projects sold to taxpayers in recent decades as enabling other good things a city wants resulted in better schools, lower poverty or more affordable housing? Are there better uses for the copious public energy and resources that will go into escalating our involvement in the convention arms race? Finance director Riebeling can't point to any, noting that his boss Karl Dean got behind a convention center early. "I don't think this is the only effort to grow tourism," says Riebeling, "but those in the industry believe it's the big missing link."
With the mayor seeking approval to buy land now, before a financing deal reveals actual costs, the opportunity for a meaningful public conversation is slipping away. By the start of 2013, we will have our freshly reupholstered city brimming with an infusion of tourists happily mingling on a shiny new nine-figure front porch. Or will we be just another city that drank the convention center Kool-Aid, paying down a pile of debt and groveling for market share in an overbuilt industry?
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